Some years ago, Willow had a contract in Rumania, a rescue and extraction. It had been her first visit to that particular country. Her first impressions had left all her senses in a state of overload; her eyes bombarded by the vibrant greens of the gardens and the garish cement block architecture of tract housing, her ears trying to make sense of the romantic language that had just a tint of Slav in it, and her nose assaulted by garbage and the wet gassy smell of death.
It had been high summer, and the scorching sun had decided to slay a goodly number of street dogs; their bodies lay where they expired on sidewalks, until their fur was chewed away by maggots and their muscles gleaming and swelling with decomposition until they burst like melons.
Like chewy fireworks.
She had never eaten better bread; she and Xander gorged themselves on it until they were silly. When he discovered the chocolate hazelnut spread known as Finete, he gained five pounds.
In the underground one day waiting for the train, so hot she wished she could just peel off her entire skin, Willow saw something that changed her life forever.
It could have been a boy.
He could have been nearly nine years old.
His eyes were glassy and red-rimmed; he was high on the deafening smell of glue, a grey metallic goop held in a brown paper bag called a punga. He himself smelled like an open sewer, dirt and oily grime collected in every crevice of skin or ratty clothing.
That was not why Willow suddenly felt nauseous and gripped Xander's hand, her throat closing in sympathy, clenching his hand until her knuckles shone white.
Some time in the horrific past of this maybe nine year old boy, someone had broken both his arms and both his legs and set them backwards. His knees and his elbows flexed the wrong direction. The boy could not walk; he crabbed about on the heels of his palms and the heels of his bare feet and begged for money. When he opened his mouth, his rotting teeth looked like brown icicles.
(da'm si mie)
Willow was nearing her first million dollars, but she did not give this boy a single leu. Money would be his death sentence; either he would be beaten and robbed of any sum she gave him, or he would use it to buy more drugs, until his liver gave out in a great flood of jaundice and his eyes bloodened until bursting. With great regret, Willow realized there was nothing she could give him that wouldn't lead to his downfall, neither clothes nor shoes nor food; each act of compassion would instantly merit an act of robbery or worse.
(God died with Buffy.
He rested on his behind on the cool and dusty tiles of the underground, plucking at her legs, and her eyes were fixated on those horrifying backwards elbows.
When the train finally came, Willow tore herself from his dirtied claws and did not look back. With Xander's arm around her shoulders they departed the station and never saw that boy again. It was not the first evidence she had collected of the shameful inhumanity of the world, the great indifference that separated men from women, the rich from the poor, the dark-skinned from the light, even before names were uttered like Muslim or Gyptian.
Gyptian. Her contract at the time had been to rescue and extract a Gyptian witch. Janna of the Kalderash, who had changed her name to Jenny to hide herself and offered service to Willow to pay her blood debt. Her greatest protection came from being one of Willow's staff.
The world had wronged this boy and that Gyptian more than anyone Willow had ever known.
(has Giles seen Jenny's scars?)
In the last seven days, Willow had come to the conclusion that there was a chance that this Tara, this apothecary, had been even more maligned by mankind than Jenny and the nameless crippled Rumanian boy. She had only to test her hypothesis in a controlled manner.
Never was Willow so sad to be proven right.
And now, with Tara's soft skin underneath her fingers, her luscious scent driving Willow insane with thirst and desire, Willow thought back to that boy and grew sad at the comparison. Could she give anything to this woman that would not lead to her downfall? Would there be any gift that could not be stripped away by those more powerful than she?
If the boy had asked for it, Willow would have killed him, in the hopes that he would find peace in the Afterlife. Maybe there he could play soccer, and build tree-forts, and alternate between chasing girls and scorning them. Upon defending a bright maiden's honour in the schoolyard, she would give him a kiss on the cheek; he could touch it and remember just how sour the Earth was in comparison.
No pungas with their bright high smell.
Willow had come to the poppy den today prepared to kill. She chose her battle clothes so very carefully, planned her entrance and exit, had prepared at least a dozen plans based on various contingencies. She had practiced her one-sided conversation in a mirror at home until she felt she could deliver it without unnecessary emotion. The last time she had come to the den she had come as a supplicant, meek and blindly faithful, all for a dream.
Not now. Never again.
(I will not be caught by surprise.)
It was looking as if compassion were a gift that Tara could not accept, which made Willow's heart sorrow all the more.
Even while her fingers touched Tara's cheeks, her slate blue eyes the only world Willow could now see, Willow sensed that Tara was about to fight back. The world had hurt her that deeply by its continued abuse; she shied away from a soft touch as would a whipped cur. She could not allow Willow nor her empathy. There was a titanic struggle in Tara's eyes, a struggle that Willow recognized all too clearly.
She had seen it often enough in her own mirror.
(if you let someone in, they can hurt you)
So many walls, and steel vault doors, and veils of adamant and iron. Far better to keep the world at a distance, and pretend that there was nothing wrong.
Willow's compassion a weapon now, more dire and menacing than any sword, and they both knew it.
What was Tara thinking of, that made her jaw tight, and her eyes hard? And had Willow really prepared a plan for this sort of outcome?
(more than a dozen different designs)
And it happened again, as it happened at first, and Willow felt like crying. Not only for the broken and jaded woman in front of her, but also because she knew she was about to be rejected again. How many times would Willow be discarded, and could her heart possibly take much more abuse?
(we're both mongrels here)
Tara deliberately took a step back, and Willow's hands fell to her sides. Tara's face closed off, she drew her lips in a thin line, and she said, "You should not have come back, Willow."
Even though Willow knew the words were coming, they still stung. She looked at the apothecary, and the woman in front of her was alarming and cold, a Siren with no human heart, no better than a beast, really, who hunted the weak of mankind, preying on their inadequacies and their fears, gorging on their dark desires like a bloated spider nursed with fell meats and foul potions.
Willow's fingers felt cold now that they were no longer touching Tara's skin.
Willow was not so easily fooled, not with the knowledge she attained all this past week, starting with Jenny's surprising revelation. This time Willow could see through the apothecary as if she were a mere pane of glass.
Tara's ready transformation into a destroying Sphinx causing Willow more anguish than ever before. Was this a compulsion, or did Tara really wish Willow never to return?
And if the apothecary thought Willow could be swayed so easily, then she really knew nothing about her.
(remember the rumanian boy?)
Every gift a dangerous one, and only by being ignored could he be free to live. For the sake of the apothecary Willow had this one moment to decide on her course of action, not knowing what either outcome would end up being. Give Tara what she so plainly needed, knowing it would lead to her destruction, or leave her to seek that destruction on her own?
Willow would always remember their kiss. Nothing could take that from her.
Decide, Willow. Will you love her, will you kill her, or will you walk away?
(it's no longer my decision
it is hers)
"Did you really think you could fool me that easily?" Willow asked, staring Tara directly in the eyes, gambling with every expectant part of her soul. "What is it you are trying so hard to protect me from?"
"Protect you?" Tara said, and then she laughed with a clear note of derision, crossing her arms in front of her chest. "You mean nothing to me. You are but one of thousands, Willow, who come to my door. I kiss all of them. What makes you so special?"
Willow could not be goaded so easily, not when she could remember the taste of Tara's lips. Not when Tara, mere minutes ago, had been so supple and fragile before her.
And her heart constricted in even greater pain, knowing what she did of Tara and her mark, seeing every word that came from Tara's mouth as an eternal sacrifice. Tara must feel for her a great deal to try so hard to push Willow away.
The game was getting dangerous, and Jenny's warnings rang in her head.
(don't go back to the den, Willow)
"You are not as clever as you think you are," Willow replied, her voice grim. "But you are telling the truth, aren't you? You would have me kill you. You would have no other."
Oh those eyes! Slate and ice and deep and cold. A blue haunted by the remembrances of sunny skies and swimming pools and blueberries with cream. Tara was in them, and Tara was winter.
"How much do you hate me, Willow?" Tara asked. "Would you rather destroy me than kill me?" The woman lifted her hands and showed her empty palms, as if her weapon were in her hands and not in her lashing tongue. "I assure you, that is what you are doing right now."
"No less than you deserve, though, is it, Tara?" Willow shot back, injecting the necessary venom in her voice even as her heart ached for her. "How long have you fed on the miseries of mankind? How long have you tainted our dreams? You are the devil, and the world should be rid of you."
"Then do it, Willow," Tara said, and she bent to pick up Willow's sword. Paralyzed for a moment by Tara's grace, her sinuous movements and that bewitching scent, it took Willow a moment to realize that the apothecary had again unsheathed the sword, and was pressing the hilt into Willow's palm. "Free mankind of me. Make them safe. That's what you do, isn't it? You are the self-appointed Saviour of the world, righting wrongs, wielding the hand of justice by the blade of a knife. How many have died at your hand, Willow? No wonder you don't sleep at night."
Willow just as swiftly tossed the blade to the floor again. "An easy end for you then, Apothecary? What if I would rather destroy you slowly like the Angel of Death that I am?"
"I should have expected nothing less," Tara shot back.
"You should have expected something more," Willow replied, her mind screaming that this was it, this was the moment she had been leading up to. Her wildly beating heart a tattoo in her chest, Willow said, "do you really think I would punish a whipped mongrel dog before punishing the Master who holds the leash?"
Tara could not control her face this time. A flash of startled white, her eyes wide, her mouth opening in a small O of surprise. Before the apothecary could prepare a counter-attack, Willow asked, "Just how long have you been a slave, Tara?"
Tara looked completely winded, as if Willow had punched her in the stomach, but she mastered her face quickly. "You need to leave, Willow. Now." With her finger, she pointed at the locked vault door.
Willow shook her head. She almost regretted the tactics she was using, how she was battering down Tara's defences, slicing into the armour Tara had tried to shield herself with. By word and deed, she would reduce Tara to rubble.
Naked and defenceless, Tara would find she could still stand her ground. With every protection stripped from her, Tara would discover her own worth. By all the gods, if this was the only way to show Tara how beautiful and deserving of happiness she was, then Willow would do it, no matter how it hurt.
Then freedom would taste all the sweeter.
She only hoped Tara would forgive her when it was all over.
More careful now than at any other point of this surreal encounter, Willow stepped forward and caught Tara's wrist in her hand. With her other hand she peeled away the filmy fabric that rustled near the crook of Tara's elbow. The mark was there, the mark that Jenny recognized.
The Apothecary froze.
Assaulting Tara with her compassion, her rich voice throbbing with emotion, Willow looked Tara so very carefully in the eyes, even as she touched that mark with the tips of her hungry fingers. "This mark, Tara. One of the most closely guarded secrets of the world."
Willow could feel the trembling in Tara's hands, she could sense that Tara was becoming dizzy and faint.
And the last, biggest gamble of them all, both of their futures hanging on this one moment. Willow still held Tara's wrist with her one hand, and lifted the other, drifting it upward, Tara like the mongrel whipped cur she was, cringing and almost reeling away from the touch.
She had been abused for so very long.
Willow's hand plunged eagerly into Tara's hair, and it was a warm glade of golden honey, and her neck was as soft as Willow remembered. Holding the back of Tara's head with her hot, lithe fingers, Willow breathed, "You are a genie, Tara, and someone very evil has your collar."